Should Christian Bakers Be Allowed to Refuse Wedding Cakes to Gays?

The thorny intersection of anti-discrimination law and freedom of conscience

Conservative pundit Erick Erickson says that "Jesus Christ would absolutely bake a cake for a gay person."* In fact, he says that if any Christian owns "a bakery or a florist shop or a photography shop or a diner," then he or she "should no more be allowed to deny service to a gay person than to a black person."

In his telling, almost everyone agrees. "The disagreement comes on one issue only—should a Christian provide goods and services to a gay wedding," he says. "That’s it. We’re not talking about serving a meal at a restaurant. We’re not talking about baking a cake for a birthday party. We’re talking about a wedding, which millions of Christians view as a sacrament of the faith and other, mostly Protestant Christians, view as a relationship ordained by God to reflect a holy relationship."

He continues:

This slope is only slippery if you grease it with hypotheticals not in play. There are Christians who have no problem providing goods and services for a gay marriage. Some of them are fine with gay marriage. Some of them think gay marriage is wrong, but they still have no problem providing goods and services. Other Christians, including a significant number of Catholic and Protestant preachers, believe that a gay marriage is a sinful corruption of a relationship God himself ordained. Because they try to glorify God through their work, they believe they cannot participate in a wedding service.

Yes, because they believe they are glorifying God in their work and view it as a ministry, they view providing goods and services as a way to advance, even in a small way, God’s kingdom. Herein lies the dispute of the day... We are not talking about race. We are not talking about restaurants. We are talking about a specific ceremony people of faith believe God himself created and ordained. Should the state force people to violate their conscience in that regard?

On those points, Andrew Sullivan agrees. He writes:

I would never want to coerce any fundamentalist to provide services for my wedding—or anything else for that matter—if it made them in any way uncomfortable. The idea of suing these businesses to force them to provide services they are clearly uncomfortable providing is anathema to me. I think it should be repellent to the gay rights movement as well.

The truth is: we’re winning this argument. We’ve made the compelling moral case that gay citizens should be treated no differently by their government than straight citizens. And the world has shifted dramatically in our direction. Inevitably, many fundamentalist Christians and Orthodox Jews and many Muslims feel threatened and bewildered by such change and feel that it inchoately affects their religious convictions. I think they’re mistaken—but we’re not talking logic here. We’re talking religious conviction. My view is that in a free and live-and-let-live society, we should give them space.

This whole debate strikes me as faintly absurd. Since when does supplying a cake or flowers to an event signify one's endorsement of its contents? (I'd happily bake a cake for the NSA holiday party next year if the gig pays enough.) But I agree with Sullivan. Gays and lesbians ought to have the court-enforced right to marry everywhere in America. Happily, they will achieve social equality in short order even absent laws that coerce Christian businesses to extend equal treatment even when highly particular issues of conscience pose an occasional conflict.

My views on this subject are colored in part by having known orthodox Catholics who wouldn't provide a cake or take photographs for a gay wedding for non-bigoted reasons. I say that with confidence because while I never actually knew them to actually encounter a gay wedding, I saw them refuse to attend weddings of folks on their second marriages, as well as straight weddings (one involved a member of their immediate family) where the couples chose to marry outside a church (that is to say, they had a Christian ceremony, though not an official Catholic mass, that took place in an outdoor space rather than a consecrated hall). 

Now, to me, the notion that Jesus Christ, their personal Lord and Savior, would want them to boycott the wedding of two practicing Catholics because they married on a patio instead of on the altar of a Catholic Church seems obviously wrong. In fact, I actually think they acted contrary to the spirit of Jesus's teachings. 

But I can respect their right to think differently, and if they told me that they wanted no part of a gay wedding not because they have anything against gays, but because they're committed to participating only in sacramental marriage as their church defines it, I'd have no problem believing them. I certainly don't think they should be coerced into doing otherwise if they own a wedding-related business. Is it really worth depriving a tiny religious minority of following their conscience or their livelihood to make a point that has little bearing on gay equality? The plight blacks faced circa 1950 was sufficiently atrocious to justify extreme remedies, including the coercion of private businesses.**

A plausible case can be made that gays today need special protection from bullying and violence. Nothing about their access to wedding-industry goods and services is even remotely comparable to the reality that justified civil-rights-era coercion, though I'd personally boycott wedding businesses that didn't welcome gay customers.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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